This was an "if only" kind of afternoon.
If only Jon Lester's long drive to right-center field had gone about 10 feet farther:
If only Carlos Gonzalez doesn't make this sliding catch (link only, no embed code available) on a drive by Anthony Rizzo leading off the fifth.
If only Trevor Story doesn't make a fantastic stop on what appeared to be a Dexter Fowler single to lead off the ninth inning. If only Kris Bryant hadn't gotten just a little too far around on Jake McGee's first-pitch fastball with two runners on base.
Sunday afternoon's "if only"s went in the Rockies' favor, so they wound up winning the series with a 2-0 shutout of the Cubs on a brilliantly gorgeous mid-April afternoon that felt more like mid-June at Wrigley Field. I can't remember an entire week going by in Chicago at this time of year with baseball weather as perfect as we had for this six-game homestand, even though it was a bit chilly for the three night games.
It's the first regular-season series loss for the Cubs since they lost two of three to the Pirates in late September, 2015. Last year's Cubs lost the first two games of a set to Pittsburgh at Wrigley Field before winning the final game on the final Sunday of the year at Wrigley. That wound up being the first of an eight-game winning streak.
This one, though... some days, the other guy just outpitches you. A tip o' the cap to Tyler Chatwood, who tied Cubs hitters in knots for seven innings, retiring the first 14 batters he faced before Jorge Soler walked with two out in the fifth. Javier Baez followed with a single, putting the then-tying run in scoring position, but David Ross hit into a force play to end the inning. If CarGo hadn't made that catch on Rizzo's ball, that could have been a big inning for the Cubs.
The Rockies' first run was a home run off Lester by Nolan Arenado with two out in the fourth. Other than that, Lester was excellent Sunday afternoonn, allowing three other hits (all singles), issuing two walks, and striking out 10 before leaving to a warm ovation with one out in the eighth and 99 pitches.
Let's talk a bit more about Lester's double, which hit the base of the wall far out of the reach of either CarGo or Brandon Barnes in center field. Lester doesn't have the speed to get to third base on that, but when your pitcher leads off an inning with a double, you really need to get him home. Fowler's fly to left couldn't advance Lester, then Jason Heyward struck out and Ben Zobrist flew to center. That was the Cubs' best chance to score until the ninth inning.
Unfortunately, by that time Justin Grimm had given up a homer to Arenado, his second of the game. Grimm seemed to have Arenado frozen by curveballs, but tried to slip a two-strike fastball past him. The ball arrived at 95, but flat and right in Arenado's zone, and we're talking about one of the best home-run hitters in the National League here.
That homer made the Cubs' attempted rally in the bottom of the ninth completely different. If the score's 1-0, Heyward's one-out double puts the tying run in scoring position, instead of it being at the plate trailing 2-0. When Rizzo got hit by a pitch, his second HBP of the year, it did put the tying run on base, but with two out. That's when Bryant, looking first-pitch fastball, got one, but yanked it foul. Just a little bit sooner on that swing and Bryant would have had a two-run double down the left-field line.
On the one hand, the Cubs really shouldn't be losing series to teams like the Rockies, who aren't very good. On the other hand, if you had told me two weeks ago that the Cubs would be 9-3 right now, I'd have been quite happy with that. And in general, starting pitchers who throw 7⅓ innings and allow one run ought to win about 85 percent of the time.
I don't know if this came across on the TV broadcast or if you were listening on the radio, but there was a definite playoff-type atmosphere at Wrigley Field in the bottom of the ninth. Crowd on its feet, almost no one left early, lots of loud cheering and yelling, something we haven't seen in years, if ever, in April. Six home games done -- can this sort of thing be sustained throughout five and a half more months?
And so, the Cubs move on to their first real test of the season, a three-game set against the Cardinals in St. Louis beginning Monday evening. Ex-Cardinal John Lackey will open the series for the Cubs against Mike Leake. It'll be interesting to see the reactions of Cardinals fans to Lackey, who they figured was leaving, and also to Heyward, who they very much wanted to stay and who got called a "trader" on Twitter. It'll be on ESPN for those of you outside the Cubs' local market.